Empire State Building Opens

The opening of the Empire State Building expressed the state of the art of skyscraper technology and introduced to the world an enduring symbol of American ingenuity and progressiveness.

Summary of Event

On August 29, 1929, The New York Times headlined an announcement that the Empire State Corporation would begin construction on an important commercial venture at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, site of the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The five New York financiers involved intended to erect the world’s tallest building on the two-acre site. Their plan was to offer prestigious rental office space in a skyscraper that would embody the richness and achievement of New York, the Empire State. When it opened during the Great Depression, the Empire State Building represented an image of strength and spirit of which New Yorkers and, by extension, all Americans could be proud. [kw]Empire State Building Opens (May 1, 1931)
[kw]Building Opens, Empire State (May 1, 1931)
Empire State Building
Architecture;Empire State Building
Skyscrapers;Empire State Building
[g]United States;May 1, 1931: Empire State Building Opens[07840]
[c]Architecture;May 1, 1931: Empire State Building Opens[07840]
[c]Science and technology;May 1, 1931: Empire State Building Opens[07840]
[c]Economics;May 1, 1931: Empire State Building Opens[07840]
Raskob, John Jakob
Lamb, William F.
Smith, Alfred E.
Hine, Lewis W.

A construction worker high above Manhattan streets on the framework of the Empire State Building. This photograph by Lewis W. Hine is one of many he created to document the courage of those who constructed the building.


The building was the inspiration of John Jakob Raskob, an influential New Yorker who was head of the Empire State Corporation and a vice president and shareholder in the General Motors Corporation. Politically active, he served as the Democratic National Chairman and acted as campaign manager for presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith, New York’s popular four-time governor. Smith lost to Herbert Hoover in the 1928 election, providing Raskob with the opportunity to offer him the position of president of the Empire State Corporation and manager of the proposed Empire State Building. Raskob’s shrewd decision to hire the charismatic Smith proved to be crucial to the success of the project. In late October of 1929, the stock market crashed, plunging the United States into the Great Depression. Many construction and skyscraper projects planned at the time were criticized as frivolous, given the severe economic slump. The Empire State Building project survived, however, largely as a result of Smith’s association with it. The man’s powerful identification with New York, his obvious pride in the city, and his immense personal appeal and reputation for integrity helped to secure a loan of $27.5 million from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

The architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon (architectural firm) was hired to design the Empire State Building. It was a young partnership with excellent credentials and a reputation for taking a practical, functional approach to commercial building. Together with chief architect William F. Lamb, Raskob calculated that 36 million cubic feet of rentable space would be needed to make the venture a profitable one. It soon became clear to Lamb that the skyscraper mass would be shaped primarily by practical matters: the size of the site (200 feet by 425 feet), a fixed budget of $60 million, a May 1, 1931, deadline, and city zoning laws. Adherence to the deadline date was of particular concern to Raskob, who wanted to avoid financial loss by ensuring immediate availability of rental space on the customary day for signing commercial leases.

Of all the practical elements involved in the design of the Empire State Building, the restrictions imposed by New York City’s 1916 zoning law Zoning laws (New York City) contributed most significantly to the building’s final shape. Aimed at protecting the city from overbuilding and ensuring sufficient light and air for all streets and offices, the law required street setbacks above the thirtieth floor for any building mass and required that no floor be more than one quarter the area of the site. The pyramidal style common to many New York City skyscrapers clearly was a reaction by local architects to these restrictions.

Lamb designed from the top down. His sixteenth attempt (Plan K) at shaping the skyscraper resulted in the final design for the Empire State Building. Following the form of the classical column, the mass was divided into three parts: a five-story base topped by a sixty-foot terrace (meeting the required setback restriction), a limestone office tower that soared to the eighty-sixth-floor observation deck, and a cap composed of a rounded fourteen-story glass and metal mooring mast for dirigibles. It was Raskob’s intent that with the continuation of transatlantic dirigible travel, the top floor of New York City’s tallest building would make the ideal international arrival lounge. The style of the building was restrained Art Deco and blended traditional motifs with the streamlined look of the machine age. Art Deco;architecture Fully conceived, the image of the Empire State Building was sleek, glamorous, and uplifting.

The construction firm of Starrett Brothers and Eken was engaged, and an elaborate strategy was mapped out in minute detail, complete with a set of overlapping monthly schedules. By October 1, 1929, the demolition of the Waldorf-Astoria was begun. The hotel would relocate to a chic uptown location. On March 30, 1930, excavation for the Empire State Building was under way. The speed with which the structure rose was surprising even to those who worked on the project.

Lamb planned to meet the May 1 deadline by doing away with handwork wherever possible, instead using glass, stone, and steel elements capable of being accurately mass produced and speedily assembled. A new method of fenestration was used that cut time and costs as well as saved office space: Glass for the sixty-five hundred windows was applied to the outside wall, or skin, of the skyscraper with metal brackets, rather than setting each pane into an individual stone frame. This also created the building’s characteristic smooth and shimmery exterior. Another timesaving innovation involved a temporary miniature railway that made tightly scheduled runs to each floor, carrying needed tools and materials.

On April 11, 1931—having broken several construction records—the completed Empire State Building towered 1,250 feet and 102 stories above New York City’s busy avenues. Built in one year and forty-five days at a cost of approximately $41 million, the world’s tallest skyscraper had, incredibly, been finished ahead of schedule and under budget.

The building officially opened at 11:15 a.m. on May 1, 1931. Standing before a festive crowd of onlookers, Alfred E. Smith assisted his two young grandchildren in a traditional ribbon-cutting ceremony at the magnificent Fifth Avenue entrance. At 11:30 a.m., President Herbert Hoover pushed a button in Washington, D.C., and the main corridors of the Empire State Building were bathed in light. Later, at a luncheon celebration on the eighty-sixth-floor observation deck, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt noted that, as a creation of vision and faith, the Empire State Building “is needed in the city of New York. It is located at a strategic center. . . . It is needed by the whole nation.”


The Empire State Building is as much an icon as it is an outstanding example of architectural achievement. Since its opening in 1931, it has become an important and dramatic source of identity for the people of New York and an internationally recognized symbol of the wealth and strength of the American nation. As such, the Empire State Building remains one of New York City’s biggest tourist attractions. More than 65 million visitors flock to the eighty-sixth-floor observation deck annually. They go to experience the dizzying sensation of height, to see the magnificent views (more than fifty miles on a clear day), and to buy millions of souvenirs. Pencils, pens, postcards, glasses and mugs, key chains, spoons, snow-globe paperweights, and at least nine different variations of the Empire State Building in miniature serve to carry its famous image to even the most remote areas of the world.

Architecturally, the Empire State Building represents the culmination of the American skyscraper race of the 1920’s and 1930’s, when monumentality was expressed by hugeness of mass and soaring height. This notion of height, which became an overriding concern among New York architects in particular, gave New York City a distinctive skyline and a progressive image that applied not only to it but also to other American cities of maturity. The building signified the nation’s vitality. It became a symbol of skyscrapers everywhere and of a force that would forever change the American urban environment. Its sheer size served to heighten controversy about the potential dangers of populating modern cities with densely packed high-rise buildings. Some perceived the great American skyscrapers as symbols of greed and profit. As the nation trudged along through the difficult Depression years, interest in the skyscraper movement waned.

From an artistic standpoint, the Empire State Building’s restrained Art Deco style sent a message to the world about the successful marriage of art and technology in the machine age. It was a theme common to many major skyscrapers of that era. By blending progressive, eclectic, and traditional European stylistic elements, Art Deco skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building expressed the forces of motion, energy, and life, integrating these with the streamlined nature of the machine. The move away from the manual way of doing things was projected, and the future of technology was glorified. American skyscrapers became linked symbolically to national dreams and expectations.

During the Depression, construction of the Empire State Building provided positive images to the suffering populace. In May of 1930, American photographer Photographers;Lewis W. Hine[Hine] Lewis W. Hine was commissioned to chronicle the rise of the building. He took more than one thousand photographs, concentrating on the energy and fearlessness of the thousands of workers involved. The photographs collected in Hine’s 1932 book Men at Work: Photographic Studies of Modern Men and Machines portrayed the workers as heroes. The collection revealed heartening images of courage, tenacity, and teamwork at a time when Depression hardships seemed almost insurmountable.

The Empire State Building remains a focal point for New Yorkers. In the 1930’s, a television antenna was mounted on the top of the building and, in a pioneering effort, images of Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat were transmitted to homes within a fifty-two-mile range. Later, topped by a sixty-foot metal pole, the building was transformed into an immense lightning rod so that scientists could study the phenomenon of lightning. Tragically, the famed building received national attention in 1945, when a B-25 bomber became lost in Manhattan’s foggy maze of skyscrapers and crashed into the seventy-ninth floor. Lives were lost, yet only one steel beam in the entire structure was damaged. The accident briefly renewed negative comments about the continued construction of skyscrapers.

The Empire State Building is an easily identifiable image and a part of American lore. Over the years, it has played a part in many motion pictures, including King Kong (1933), An Affair to Remember (1957), and Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz have incorporated it into their works. Suicidal individuals and celebrities alike have been drawn by the mystique and majesty of the towering structure. Visitors have included Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, and Helen Keller.

The Empire State Building is about many things—glamour, identity, commerce, entertainment, technology, opportunity, and, most important, achievement. Although it was surpassed in height when New York’s World Trade Center towers opened in 1972, and later by the Sears Tower in Chicago and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, its image and symbolism endure. With the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, the Empire State Building once again came to dominate the New York skyline. Empire State Building
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Skyscrapers;Empire State Building

Further Reading

  • Goldberger, Paul. The Skyscraper. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Excellent discussion of the skyscraper movement in Chicago versus that in New York. Chapter 5 focuses on the skyscraper races of the 1930’s that produced the Chrysler, Chanin, and Empire State Buildings. Includes photographs, endnotes, and index.
  • Goldman, Jonathan. The Empire State Building Book. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. Brief, entertaining history presents facts and anecdotes. Includes excellent photographs and an interesting collection of postcard pictures, artists’ renditions, and other memorabilia.
  • Huxtable, Ada Louise. The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style. 1984. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Treatise on the history, aesthetics, politics, and economics of tall office building—what the Pulitzer Prize-winning author calls the “drama of the skyscraper.” Chronicles the search for a skyscraper style from the time when architects looked to the architectural styles of the past for inspiration to the newer varied styles of the late twentieth century.
  • James, Theodore, Jr. The Empire State Building. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Exuberant, almost emotional, history includes many unusual facts and anecdotes. Features photographs (many taken by Lewis W. Hine), appendix of interesting facts, bibliography, and index.
  • Macauley, David. Unbuilding. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980. Author/illustrator combines meticulous and playful pen-and-ink drawings with a unique fantasy tale about the dismantling of the Empire State Building in the year 1989. The story provides a vehicle for a technically accurate explanation of the building’s structure and engineering. Enjoyable for both juvenile and adult readers. Includes glossary.
  • Messler, Norbert. The Art Deco Skyscraper in New York. Rev. ed. New York: Peter Lang, 1986. Sophisticated treatment of the cultural and historical significance of New York City’s Art Deco skyscrapers of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Highlights and interprets the architectural elements unique to this style and discusses the American focus on technology and the machine age. Includes photographs, extensive notes, and index.
  • Reynolds, Donald Martin. The Architecture of New York City: Histories and Views of Important Structures, Sites, and Symbols. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Interesting and informative chronological survey of New York City architecture from the seventeenth century to the end of the twentieth century. Provides details about a wide range of significant buildings and structures. The Empire State Building is covered in Chapter 12, which is devoted to a study of the Art Deco skyscrapers. Includes glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • Roth, Leland M. American Architecture: A History. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2003. Discussion of the history of architecture in the United States examines the many different forces that have influenced styles and trends. Places the design of the urban skyscraper within the larger national context. Includes many illustrations, chronology, glossary, and index.
  • Schleier, Merrill. The Skyscraper in American Art, 1890-1931. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1986. Discusses the significance and meaning of skyscraper imagery in the arts as a direct reflection of the effects of skyscraper technology on American culture. Highlights artists such as photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Margaret Bourke-White and painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Tauranac, John. The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark. New York: Scribner, 1995. A thorough history of the building and its place in the history of architecture as well as the history of New York City. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.

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